I have said on multiple occasions during this offseason that I think there's a fairly good chance that the Twins will be a better team overall in 2009 than they were in 2008 despite having made essentially zero moves to improve the roster over the course of the winter. This belief is seeded in the fact that the Twins' roster is overwhelmingly comprised of young players still learning their way through the majors, and history tells us that players like this often get better and better as they make adjustments and move toward their physical prime.
With a player like Torii Hunter in his later years with the Twins, we basically knew what to expect. Since Hunter had established himself at the big-league level, one could project with a fair amount of certainty the type of production Hunter would put forth on any given year, within given boundaries. The same is true for many of the veteran players populating opposing AL Central rosters. With 2,681 career at-bats, Justin Morneau is likely to be the most experienced starter in the Twins' 2009 lineup and the only player to have logged more than 2,500 big-league ABs. For comparison, the Indians (who I currently view as the division favorites) are likely to sport a lineup with at least five players that have surpassed the 2,500-AB threshold. The Tigers figure to feature six such players, the White Sox four.
Carlos Gomez, who served as Hunter's replacement in center field last year, has just one full season of major-league experience under his belt. With his raw physical tools and sizable upside, he's at an age where immense strides are possible and moderate strides are expected. Of course, it's also possible that Gomez fails to make the necessary adjustments and fizzles out with further exposure to major-league pitching and scouting reports.
With youthful and relatively inexperienced players filling the majority of their lineup, the Twins are playing the odds and hoping that the improvement outweighs the regression. Having finished just a game out of first place last year, even moderate overall improvement could make the difference. So today, I'll break down the probabilities of each projected offensive starter improving on his 2008 performance. Please note that these figures are pretty much arbitrary and not based on any mathematical formula -- they are simply educated guesses I've taken after judging all available information.
C - Joe Mauer
2008 Stats: .328/.413/.451, 9 HR, 85 RBI, 98 R
Mauer posted better numbers in 2006, so we know he's capable of improved production, but it's awfully hard to project a better line than the one posted above. If Mauer can begin to display some power while maintaining his elite BA/OBP numbers, he could conceivably take the next step and cement himself as the best player in the AL. It's more likely, however, that he struggles with injuries at some point during the season and takes (probably small) a step backward.
Probability of Improvement (PoI): 20 percent.
1B - Justin Morneau
2008 Stats: .300/.374/.499, 23 HR, 129 RBI, 97 R
For a few years in a row now, Morneau has carried excellent numbers into the final months of the season before limping through the final weeks and leaving his overall line at a less spectacular final point. Morneau has shown consistent improvement with his plate approach and, in my opinion, is likely to regain some of his power which regressed last year. He'll be 28 for the majority of the season, a prime age. I like his chances to finish with better numbers in 2009, though perhaps not drastically better.
PoI: 75 percent.
2B - Alexi Casilla
2008 Stats: .281/.333/.374, 7 HR, 50 RBI, 58 R
I go back and forth on Casilla. On the one hand, he's still only 24 years old and is an athletically gifted player with solid defensive skills. On the other hand, he hasn't shown much over the past couple years and I think he's being overrated by a lot of local fans. While Casilla provided a boost with his initial surge upon being called up last season, he posted a .591 OPS after returning from an injury in mid-August to finish with a final line was not particularly impressive, and he had played quite poorly in Triple-A prior to his May call-up. Casilla is young and his '08 line doesn't set a very high baseline, but I worry that the player we'll see this year will be the one we saw over the majority of the last two seasons and not just May-through-July of 2008.
PoI: 50 percent.
3B - Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher
2008 Stats (Harris): 265/.323/.394, 7 HR, 49 RBI, 57 R
2008 Stats (Buscher): 294/.340/.394, 4 HR, 47 RBI, 29 R
The indication has been that the Twins will platoon these players this season, a strategy which would take advantage of their abilities to hit opposite-armed pitchers and ideally maximize their offensive production. Buscher holds a .294/.354/.411 line against right-handers during his limited MLB experience, while Harris has managed a .295/.360/.440 line against southpaws. It is questionable whether Ron Gardenhire can actually implement a strict platoon, but if he can mostly shield these players against pitchers they're vulnerable against, the Twins should be able to improve on a .283/.330/.399 hitting line at third-base that included numerous brutal at-bats from Mike Lamb.
PoI (for 3B overall): 75 percent.
SS - Nick Punto
2008 Stats: .284/.344/.382, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 43 R
The numbers Punto posted last year were nearly identical to the ones he posted in 2006, and they're plenty solid for a solid defensive shortstop. Unfortunately, his numbers in both of those seasons were superior to his overall minor-league line, and given that he's 31 years old, I see only a slim chance of him building upon the numbers he posted last season. His brutal 2007 campaign reminds us that there's a lot of room to fall, but without the pressure of batting high in the order or playing an offense-oriented position, I think Punto should be able to keep his regression relatively small.
PoI: 10 percent.
LF - Denard Span
2008 Stats: .294/.387/.432, 6 HR, 47 RBI, 70 R
Span burst onto the season with an outstanding performance last year in his major-league debut, and his unimpressive minor-league track record suggests he'll have a very tough time repeating -- much less improving upon -- that feat. It does bear noting, however, that Span put up monster numbers in Triple-A last year and was also very good there during the second half of 2007. This turnaround in production, coupled with the fact that his patience and power looked pretty legitimate last year, lead me to believe more than most that he's capable of at least posting similar numbers in 2009. I don't think he's necessarily likely to improve, but I also don't think it's anywhere close to impossible.
PoI: 40 percent.
CF - Carlos Gomez
2008 Stats: .258/.296/.360, 7 HR, 59 RBI, 79 R
Gomez has major strides to make with his plate approach, and unfortunately he didn't make a whole lot of visible progress over the course of the season. Still, he put up far better numbers last year than he did in his major-league debut with the Mets in 2007, and at age 23 should certainly be expected to take another step in the right direction this year. Reports that he's been working hard to refine his strike zone control this offseason are encouraging. Gomez probably won't break out and reach his lofty potential this year, but I'd be very surprised if he didn't take a step in that direction.
PoI: 80 percent.
RF - Michael Cuddyer
2008 Stats: .249/.330/.369, 3 HR, 36 RBI, 30 R
Injuries limited Cuddyer to 71 games last year, and pretty clearly dampened his performance when he was able to get on the field. Cuddyer strikes me as the type of player who might decline quickly once he reaches a certain age, but he'll be 30 this year which still qualifies as a prime year. As long as he can stay healthy, there's very little chance he doesn't surpass last year's paltry numbers, and I'm assuming he'll be doing everything he can to stay healthy this year after dealing with frustrating ailments during both of the past two seasons.
PoI: 90 percent.
DH - Jason Kubel
2008 Stats: .272/.335/.471, 20 HR, 78 RBI, 74 R
After missing the entire 2005 season due to a major knee injury, Kubel has made steady improvement since returning to the Twins in 2006, seeing his OPS leap from 665 to 785 to 806. It could be that he peaked last year, but Kubel's fantastic minor-league numbers suggest that he has more upside remaining and with just 1,161 major-league at-bats he remains relatively young in terms of baseball experience even though he'll turn 27 this year. (For comparison, 23-year-old Delmon Young has 1,346 career MLB at-bats.) The key for Kubel at this point will be improving his plate discipline and raising his average, skills that he clearly possessed in the minors where he posted a nearly even K/BB ratio and batted .320. In both of the past two seasons he has had his overall numbers dragged down by slow starts; the hope is that this year, with a starting spot firmly locked down for the first time ever, he'll be able to hit the ground running.
PoI: 65 percent.
OF/DH: Delmon Young
2008 Stats: .290/.336/.405, 10 HR, 69 RBI, 80 R
It's tough to label Young's position since Gardy apparently doesn't currently view him as a member of the Opening Day lineup, but it stands to reason that the outfielder will get his work in one way or another this season. The Twins were hoping that Young would be able to take a major step forward last year in his second major-league season, but unfortunately he merely treaded water, posting an OPS that was 17 points higher than the mediocre 724 figure he put in up 2007. I have a hard time believing Young will ever reach the superstar potential some dreamed of a year or two ago, but this kid is too talented to put up sub par numbers for three straight seasons. He must improve this year. He must.
PoI: 80 percent.
And so, in one man's humble opinion, out of 10 players who figure to get regular playing time (counting Harris/Buscher as one), six are more likely than not to build on their 2008 performances. And I don't see players like Mauer, Span and Punto as being particularly likely to post improved numbers, I'd also be fairly surprised if any of those players experienced a major regression. That is... as long as they stay healthy.
And of course, health will be a huge factor. No team stays healthy all year, and some of the players listed above are almost certain to have disappointing seasons, if even through no fault of their own. Depth will be key, and you can be fairly confident that players like Matt Tolbert, Jason Pridie and Mike Redmond, along with various farmhands, will be called upon to step up this season.